Blow the dust off a Covent Garden schedule for 1986 and you will see no sign of Darcey Bussell or Sylvie Guillem. Young Miss Bussell (pictured, right, in La Ronde) was still at the Royal Ballet School, though soon to be plucked from obscurity by Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Meanwhile in Paris, Mlle Guillem was already firmly under the wing of Rudolf Nureyev who made her an etoile of the Paris Opera Ballet at the unusually young age of 19 in 1984.
Superficially, the dancers were rather alike. They were both unusually tall for ballerinas, both good technicians, both beautiful. But their different personalities and styles attracted different audiences. Bussell's English-rose looks and modest charm appealed to traditionalists and Anglophiles; Guillem's relentless chic and supercharged stage presence was a hit with the international crowd.
Guillem took charge of her own career from an early age. Nureyev's example had encouraged her to be demanding, even arrogant on occasion - traits that eventually led to her leaving Paris for London. The Royal Ballet knew solid-gold box-office when it saw it and offered the young starlet an attractive contract as principal guest artist. Guillem's flying visits to London were standing-room-only thanks to her flamboyant, gymnastic style, her fondness for super-high extensions and seemingly endless balances. Darcey Bussell was in many ways a classic Royal Ballet School product. Disciplined, modest and immature, she seemed the polar opposite of Guillem: Guillem would insist that suitable partners be flown in at a moment's notice rather than dance with local talent; Bussell's partnerships were arranged by management. Various tall men were imported. At one point the Bolshoi heart-throb Irek Mukhamedov was tipped as a life partner but his medium height made many pas de deux impossible. This incompatibility led to the abrupt cancellation of Bussell's deusic had kept the light of freedom burning in Czech hearts ever since the Russian tanks had rolled in some two decades earlier. The ramifications were significant in the West, too. Pop, so often condescended to as child's play, at last acknowledged its own maturity. The result was the rise of truly adult-oriented music: as the singles market dwindled away to a trickle commensurate with teen pocket-money budgets, the albums market boomed. Autumn 1986 saw Paul Simon's Graceland top the UK album charts, kick-starting the "world music" boom. The magazine publisher Emap launched Q magazine in 1986, quickly mopping up the hundreds of thousands of older pop fans alienated by the youth-oriented NME and Melody Maker. Meanwhile, the hardware industry, emboldened by a temporarily booming economy and the increased spending-power of the "mature" rock fan, pulled off the single greatest marketing coup in pop history, persuading us all to ditch those scratchy old vinyl LPs and replace them with shiny new silver discs at twice the price. …